11 Tips for How to Finish a Basement From Floor to Ceiling

Kristin Luna
Written by Kristin Luna
Updated December 27, 2021
Girl playing with toys in family room.
Photo: fizkes / Adobe Stock

Transform your unfinished basement into an enjoyable space with these remodeling tips

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Learning how to finish a basement properly will promote you from home renovation novice straight to the pro leagues. But how do you get started, and in what order should you tackle your basement project? If you’re making a plan for your basement, follow these tips to keep your project running smoothly.

1. Assess Your Needs

Before getting your hands dirty, you need to think about how a basement renovation best serves you and your family. Maybe you have a child who will soon be a teenager and needs their own room, or perhaps you thrive on entertaining and want an extra space to host guests. 

The easiest way to finish a basement begins with the most important part: identifying its primary function. If your basement is the media room, you won’t need much natural light beyond what is required. On the other hand, a craft room would be better suited for a finished basement that has multiple window banks or a well-lit interior.

2. Research Local Basement Codes and Permit Requirements

Your local code is one significant factor that could limit the extent of your basement remodel. Before ramping up your DIY plans, research common DIY construction code violations and check with your local codes office to ensure that your project stays in compliance (and within budget). 

Adding an egress window, for example, can be pricey, and almost all codes departments in the U.S. require a way to safely exit a habitable area in the event of an emergency. The vast majority of communities across the country follow the guidelines outlined by the International Code Council if you need to look something up in a pinch.

3. Clear Out the Junk

Even an unused, unfinished basement has likely accumulated dirt, debris, boxes, and who knows what else over the years. Rent a dumpster to clear out clutter and clean up the work area so that you can start your project in a clean space. This dumpster also will come in handy if you’re removing insulation, beams, rotted wood, or other large pieces.

4. Waterproof Your Basement

One of the first things to do when finishing the basement is address any moisture issues. Waterproofing your basement protects your renovation investment, particularly since you’ll be installing drywall and insulation, doing extensive electrical wiring, and furnishing the space. Waterproofing also helps eliminate conditions that can cause mold, which is useful if you live in an area that gets a lot of rain or has a high water table. 

Sump pumps work as a back-up for emergency flooding issues in the basement, but they aren’t the only solution you’ll need if you’re turning your basement into a living area. Waterproofing the space entails several steps, from applying interior sealers to the walls, and sealing up pipes, to diverting outside water drainage away from the foundation. You’ll likely need a pro to help with these steps and might consider hiring a basement finishing professional to get it done.

5. Install Insulation

To transform a basement into a habitable area, it should have good insulation in the walls to help keep the space more efficient and climate-controlled. Spun-glass insulation is the traditional method of basement insulation, but there are other products like open- or closed-cell spray foam insulation to consider, as well. If you choose spray foam, consider hiring a professional insulation company since it’s not a DIY project due to the level of technical difficulty and equipment required. 

6. Running Lines

One nice thing about a basement conversion is that all of the utilities—like electricity and plumbing—are readily accessible since they are already servicing your home. If you’d like to install a bathroom and the accompanying sewer systems, you’ll have readily available wiring and water to tie into. 

Electrical

A local electrician will be able to figure out load levels and design so that you’re able to efficiently tap into your existing system. An electrician can also help you with space planning if you’re unsure about tackling the addition of extra lights or power plugs for an entertainment system. 

It's important to note that the ceiling of your basement forms the basis for the utilities that run the length of your home, much like your electrical box that ties into the city grid. Therefore, things can get messy if the basement wasn't intended to be a habitable area. Finishing a basement presents the unique opportunity to clean up decades’ worth of haphazard additions and streamline your home’s electrical backbone.

Plumbing

Plumbing is located in the basement because water follows gravity and always goes down, and centralizing plumbing on a lower level minimizes the damage should slow leaks occur. Recognize that every toilet, sink, and shower in your home crisscrosses or—at the very least—is adjacent to your basement, and you'll need to accommodate the rest of your residence during the remodeling process. 

While the ease of access to a water system benefits the addition of a bathroom or sink, you'll rarely want to try and pump your sewer waste up. For help with the plumbing in your basement, find a plumber near you to assist.

7. Add an Egress Window

If your basement does not have an outside access point and is going to be a functional living space, you'll need to install an egress window for safety purposes and to get it up to code. Since adding an egress window requires a high level of skill and has some structural foundation elements, you should consult with a local window installer instead of attempting a DIY. While it’s a bit of an investment, you’ll have the added benefit of added natural light through an egress window bank.

8. Frame the Walls

To install drywall and paneling and run electrical and plumbing lines, you typically need to install joists to frame out the concrete or rock foundation that comprises your basement walls. If you’re breaking up the area into separate rooms, you’ll also need to factor framing these spaces into the equation. Wall framing isn't a typical DIY project, so if you're planning on finishing the walls, consult with a carpenter.

9. Install Drywall

If you’re not into the industrial, raw look of an exposed foundation or just want added insulation, it’s time for drywall as part of the basement finishing project. Hanging up drywall is a lot like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle and entails hanging up the pieces and attaching it to wall studs. Finishing out the seams and screw holes requires expert handling of drywall mud and trowels, so unless you’re ready to painstakingly sand layers of mud to smooth perfection, hire a professional drywall contractor to complete the room.  

10. Install Flooring

Consider your basement’s intended renovation purpose and what floor material is the best look and function for it. For example, you might use laminate flooring for a highly trafficked bonus room, while a quality hardwood floor is better suited for an executive home office. 

You have a couple of options here: The first is to pour a concrete slab in the basement, which can be an expensive endeavor. If you've properly waterproofed the basement, the second option is to install stud framing and a subfloor before choosing to install tile, hardwood, or laminate. Ultimately, the type of flooring materials you choose will dictate what type of subflooring you’ll need to lay down first.

Laminate floors are easy enough to DIY if you’re handy with geometry and basic home renovation tools. For concrete floors, or if you intend to install hardwood on top of a freshly poured concrete floor, you’ll want to hire a flooring professional

11. Install the Ceiling

Basement ceilings can be unsightly with tangles of wiring and plumbing crowded around the joists. A drop ceiling or drywall or paneling can effectively cover the ceiling area and give it a finished look. Just make sure to create access points in your basement for critical systems like drains and water lines is essential for the long-term maintenance of the rest of your home. Sealing in shut-off valves or junction boxes, while aesthetically pleasing, won’t allow you to service these systems in the future. 

Not too into DIYing your basement remodel? Find a basement remodeler near you.

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